Albany home of abolitionists holds pieces of past fraught with overcoming oppression and heralds the hope of a brave new world

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
A bust of Stephen Myers was created by Lewis Greenstein for the lone surviving photograph of the abolitionist and newspaper editor. It is displayed in the parlor of the house where Myers lived in the 1850s.

ALBANY — A tiny ceramic flower — white with a glimmer of gold — was unearthed by archaeologists digging on Livingston Avenue in Arbor Hill.

Janine Moon researched the delicate remnant of the past and discovered it had been part of a mid-19th-Century vase from France. She then went online to find and purchase a similar vase — in tact, with all its gaudy glory.

That vase, with the tiny flower next to it, is now displayed on the second floor of a brick row house at 194 Livingston Ave. This was the home of abolitionists Stephen and Harriet Myers.

Stephen Myers was the editor of The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate. “We devote all our time to the care of the oppressed who come among us,” he wrote in 1860.

Mary Liz and Paul Stewart founded the Underground Railroad History Project in the 1990s, which purchased the house and — largely through grants and volunteer efforts — saved the venerable brick structure that had been on the verge of collapse.

The couple has sponsored an annual conference for 17 years — this year’s theme was “Embracing Equity in a Global Society.”

“We must not be deterred by the current climate of discourse in our nation,” the Stewarts wrote in a program welcoming scholars to the conference. “We must hold fast to our dedication to equity and justice for all.”

“It’s more than a house” is the new motto for the historic site, said Moon. Indeed, the home hosts a book group, is open for visitors and tours, hosts an annual Independence Day celebration and a Young Abolitionist Teen Scholars’ Institute as well as supporting historic gardens on nearby lots.

Most of this activity is fueled by volunteers. Individuals’ donations are everywhere — a sculpted bust of Stephen Myers; a new front door built to look like the original; a velvet-covered Empire sofa; well-worn captain’s chairs; a coal-burning parlor stove; and a stunning sculpture made to honor enslaved people who were recently re-buried, their bones laid to rest in artist-made coffins.

Moon is a member of the project’s board of directors who has, for the past two years, volunteered a day a week to research the bits and pieces of history that have been unearthed first in digs by Hartgen Archeological Associates and later by University at Albany archaeology students.

“We have thousands if not hundreds of thousands of pieces,” said Moon. They are catalogued by depth and date and neatly stored in stacks of boxes on the third floor of the Myers residence.

“We pick and choose what we want to highlight,” said Moon.

Mary Liz Stewart said items like the vase are significant because there is a common misconception that African Americans before the Civil War were either slaves or very poor.

The vase is a shining example, tangible proof, of the middle-class life that some African Americans in Albany led in the 19th Century.

The vase fragment had been unearthed a few doors down from the Myers residence, during a dig on property owned by Dr. Thomas Elkins who worked with Stephen Myers as a member of the Vigilance Committee. His house is no longer standing.

“Dr. Elkins traveled extensively throughout his life,” Moon writes in notes that accompany the exhibit. “By examining the ceramics found during archaeological digs, we can map out the places he traveled.”

She goes on to quote from a contemporary newspaper account: “Dr. Thomas Elkins, the colored physician … has one of the most perfect private cases of curiosities to be seen in the City. He has traveled extensively, and selected articles from Europe, Asia, Africa and all parts of America. The Geological Museum, we hear, has offered $1,500 for the assortment.”

Elkins learned his profession from three different doctors: Alden March, founder of Albany Medical Center, who taught him surgery; Harmon Wynkoop, who taught him apothecary; and Charles Payne, who taught him dentistry. “It was the last hurrah of the apprentice system for becoming a doctor,” said Moon of the era. She holds a master’s degree from the University at Albany in public history, which focuses on research and museum sites.

The two pieces in the collection that stand out for Moon are the fragments of containers of hair-care products — Kaphairon, a tonic made of alcohol, castor oil, and fragrance oil, and Ox Marrow Pomade,  used for straightening hair.

“Dr. Elkins was quite bald. I can’t say for 100 percent, but I believe Dr. Elkins was the last person to have touched these. It’s cool,” said Moon.

Part of the display includes advertisements from the era. “Straighten Your Hair,” says the ad for the Ox Marrow Pomade with a picture of an African-American woman, her hair parted down the middle. The “before using” half of her head has tight curls. The “after using” half has longer, straightened hair.

The ad for Kaphairon shows a languid white woman having ointment applied to her long hair by a black woman whose head is wrapped in a red turban.

“These advertisements remind us of the racism the African-American community was faced with even with simple tasks like purchasing hair products,” say the display notes.

“Often times, we forget what the world was like. We put abolitionists on a pedestal,” said Moon. She went on to focus on the reality in which they lived. “Stephen Myers’s kids were kicked out of school because they were black … These were the ads he would see — with one of his sisters in servitude to a white woman. He’s bombarded with it. When we look at an ad, we see what the culture was like and what the world was like.”

Moon also said, “I want to find as many primary sources as I can that match what’s in the ground.” Two months ago, Elkins’s brief obituary was found. He died on Aug. 10, 1900.

Moon says of what the exhibits reveal, “It’s not just the story of Harriet and Stephen Myers. It’s the story of massive change. We’re not about preserving the past, but about coming together to bring momentum for change.”

Generations of history in one house

Paul Stewart said the Myers residence has a double-barrelled meaning.

“On the one hand,” he said, “it was a refuge for people and also a home for Stephen and Harriet and their children. Their interest was standing foursquare against the federal laws that sanctioned slavery and providing an uplift to the black people who suffered under slavery.

“Today, it’s about understanding their struggle and it’s a beacon for showing us how we should react to similar kinds of oppression in our world and surrounding us.”

Standing in the parlor of the Myerses’ home, Stewart points to a Currier and Ives engraving, hanging in a place of honor on the brick wall over the coal-burning stove. The formal portrait depicts seven men, each in a three-piece suit, and is titled “The First Colored Senator and Representatives in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States.”

Stewart points out that most Americans aren’t aware of the election of these men right after the Civil War when blacks were given the right to vote in southern states. The senator was H. R. Revels of Mississippi. The congressmen were: Robert DeLarge of South Carolina, Jefferson Long of Georgia, Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Josiah Walls of Florida, Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, and R. Brown Elliott of South Carolina.

“After reconstruction, it wasn’t until the 1960s that another African American was elected to Congress,” said Stewart, referring to Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.

Stewart, who describes himself as a life-long history enthusiast, said, “There are things that we don’t talk about in that time period between the Civil War and the Great Depression.”

He gave some examples of history that is often not part of school curricula. In his midwestern school, Stewart said, “We did talk about the Klan but we didn’t learn the play-by-play of the black troops in the South that helped keep order. We didn’t learn about the white mobs that terrorized blacks and kept them from voting.”

Another example: “We were taught that Woodrow Wilson was an intellectual and the founder of the League of Nations. We didn’t hear he was an overt racist … that he believed in segregation ... He segregated federal departments that had been integrated.”

The book-reading group that meets at the Myers residence has recently talked about “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated American” by Richard Rothstein.

The book describes how residential segregation has been abetted by the United States government.

“Segregation has not been de facto,” said Stewart, meaning from private activity, “but de jure,” from policy or law set by the government. He gave an example: “In the 1950s, federal-backed mortgages were designated for white neighborhoods.”

The layers of history that are revealed in the home the Myers once rented span generations. In one corner of the parlor is a stunning copper sculpture called “The Free Wall” made by D.D. McCullough of Phree Spirit Abstracts.

The bones of 14 slaves had been discovered in 2005 during a sewer project at Schuyler Flatts. In 2016, they were reburied with dignity. Small coffins were made by local artists to hold the remains, which lay in state at the Schuyler Mansion — the historic home of Philip Schuyler, the New York Senator and Revolutionary War general whose family had enslaved the 14 people. Their remains were being buried the next day at St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands. McCullogh created the sculpture in their honor, depicting each of the 14 people whose identities will never be known.

She drove her artwork from Philadelphia, where she lives, to the memorial site at the Schuyler Mansion, Stewart said. The sculpture now stands as a proud reminder of that celebration of once-forgotten lives. Next to the sculpture hang pictures of the small coffins created by artists.

The Young Abolitionists, a youth group, gather at the Myer residence, too. Sometimes they don the 1800s finery stored on the top floor.

The house has narrow stairs, cupped with the passage of footsteps over two centuries, leading to cellar kitchen. A parlor opens to a dining room on the first floor. Bedrooms, now used for displaying exhibits, are on the second floor. And the third floor, with narrow windows, now stores archaeological collections as well as the clothes of a bygone era.

“The Young Abolitionists talk about abolitionist history and relate it to things they’re doing today,” said Stewart.

Gardens grow more than plants

Mario Salerno, like Janine Moon, discovered the Myers house when he toured it; that was seven years ago. He’s been helping out ever since. “My wife and I always visited historic sites and we always had gardens,” he said.

“She was very artistic,” Salerno said of his wife, Sandra, who died last year. “She would research historic vegetables and flowers … She got in touch with the company that supplied plants for Thomas Jefferson’s gardens.”

In the cellar of the Myers residence is a diorama that, in miniature, depicts the gardens that have been created alongside the rowhouse that adjoins 174 Livingston. Popsicle sticks represent the fence that edges the garden, and raised beds unfold in orderly fashion.

As Salerno stands in the center of the still-barren garden Saturday afternoon, he says, “This had been the Abram Johnson House. He was Harriet Myers’s father, a ship captain who plied the Hudson River from New York to Albany.”

Salerno stands on a pathway made of wood mulch and says, “The Young Abolitionists got the idea to make the garden an outline of the house.”

The path where he stood represents the center hallway of the long-gone rowhouse. A series of raised beds to the left, each built of sturdy timbers, represent the rooms in the house. The long, narrow bed to the right represents the stairway.

When the beds come to life in warmer weather, they will be filled with both vegetables and flowers, all plants typical of the mid-1880s, researched by Sandra Salerno. “She made signs, on metal stakes, to describe them,” said Salerno.

To the left of the garden is a dilapidated house with a big red “X” on it, indicating it’s been condemned by the city. The Underground Railroad History Project hopes to acquire it.

On the far side of the condemned house is the property where Dr. Elkins’s house once stood. It has a small, circular garden with a sign describing who Elkins was.

The project’s gardens have reached beyond the ground where they grow. St. Anne’s Institute, which helps troubled girls, had an unused greenhouse, Salerno said. “They let us use the greenhouse to teach girls about gardening,” said Salerno. “They really get into it and do a good job with the plants,” he said of the girls. “We have a sale for the staff at St. Anne’s.”

Salerno, who is 77, has retired from his work as a probation officer. “It’s more fun being a volunteer and having a positive relationship with good kids, not chasing them to keep them out of trouble,” he said.

As a young man, he had studied at Maryknoll Seminary in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with the goal of becoming a missionary priest, but decided instead to join the Peace Corps. He skipped his seminary graduation ceremony, trained for the Peace Corps at Syracuse University, and was part of the first Peace Corps group in Tanzania.

“The country was two years old. Everything was new and changing,” said Salerno. “There was an earthquake, an army uprising to get rid of the English officers. The country changed its name twice in the two years we were there.”

He taught English to Sukuma kids. English was their third language — their second being Swahili — and the one in which high school courses were taught. “They were great kids, eager to learn. I think they were brilliant,” said Salerno. He now uses the Swahili he remembers while teaching English to recent immigrants to Albany.

While he was abroad, Salerno sought out his mother’s family. She was born in Ethiopia, in Eritrea, coming to the United States when she was 14. His father had come from Italy — having been raised in an orphanage there during the world war — when he was in his 20s and delivered bread to Italian families including hers.

Salerno recently connected with family he’d never met in Italy — the marvels of Facebook — and also went to a reunion of Peace Corps members from the 1960s. “Old friends remember things about you that you don’t remember yourself,” Salerno said, adding wistfully, “When an old friend dies, a little bit of you dies, too.”

As he fell silent a moment, a little girl who lives next door to the garden, in the rowhouse adjoining the the Myers residence, stepped through a hole in the fence and waved hello.

“Do you know my name?” Salerno asked her.

“Mario,” answered 10-year-old Nerissa Chevannes.

They stood side by side in the sunshine. Nerissa said she liked the garden.


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